The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Chansons de geste

BEFORE

5th–11th century In Anglo-Saxon Britain poets known as scops entertain the courts by singing or reciting epics of mainly Scandinavian history.

880 The Canticle of Saint Eulalia is one of the early texts in the northern vernacular langue d’oïl (Old French).

AFTER

Late 11th or early 12th century Early poems of the Matter of France appear, such as the Chanson de Guillaume and Gormont et Isembart.

c.1200 Cantar de mio Cid, the first known Spanish epic poem, is written.

14th–15th century The great age of medieval French poetry is ended by the upheaval of the Hundred Years’ War (1337– 1453) and the devastation of the Black Death (c.1346–53).

Although some religious texts appeared in the vernacular Old French as early as the 9th century, literature in French is generally considered to have its beginnings in the epic poems known as chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”) that were recited or sung at court by minstrels or jongleurs. Originally, these narrative poems in verse were part of an oral tradition, but from the end of the 11th century they were increasingly written down.

Legendary exploits

The chansons de geste formed the basis for the Matter of France, one of three parts of a wider literary cycle of medieval works, mainly in Old French. The Matter of France featured the exploits of historical figures such as the Frankish king Charlemagne. Neither of the other two literary cycles – the Matter of Rome (the history and mythology of the classical world) and the Matter of Britain (tales of King Arthur and his knights) – was the subject of chansons de geste.

One of the earliest chansons from the Matter of France was The Song of Roland, a version of which was by a poet known as Turold. In some 4,000 lines of verse, it tells of the legendary Battle of Roncevaux (modern Roncesvalles) in 778, during Charlemagne’s reign. In the fight for the Muslim stronghold of Saragossa in Spain, Roland is betrayed by his stepfather and ambushed. Refusing to call for help he puts up a valiant fight, but as his men are massacred he blows a call for revenge on his oliphant (an elephant-tusk horn) with such force that he dies. Charlemagne answers, arriving and defeating the Muslims.

The chansons de geste inspired a tradition of cantar de gesta poetry in Spain, including the Castilian epic Cantar de mio Cid, and many of the poems were retold in German and as the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga. Even after poets from the 12th century developed a preference for writing courtly lyric poetry, the finest chansons de geste, such as The Song of Roland, remained popular until the 15th century.

See also: Beowulf • “Under the Linden Tree” • Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart • The Canterbury Tales